The Digital Divide Starts With a Laptop Shortage

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Chromebooks, web-based devices that run on software from Google and are made by an array of companies, are in particular demand because they cost less than regular laptops. That has put huge pressure on a supply chain that cobbles laptop parts from all over the world, usually assembling them in Asian factories, Mr. Boreham said.

While that supply chain has slowly geared up, the spike in demand is “so far over and above what has historically been the case,” said Stephen Baker, a consumer electronics analyst at the NPD Group. “The fact that we’ve been able to do that and there’s still more demand out there, it’s something you can’t plan for.”

Adding to the problem, many manufacturers are putting a priority on producing expensive electronics that net greater profits, like gaming hardware and higher-end computers for at-home employees, said Erez Pikar, the chief executive of Trox, a company that sells devices to school districts.

Before the year began, Trox predicted it would deliver 500,000 devices to school districts in the United States and Canada in 2020, Mr. Pikar said. Now, the total will be two million. But North American schools are still likely to end the year with a shortage of more than five million devices, he said. He added that he was not aware of any large-scale efforts to get refurbished or donated laptops to school districts.

Districts that placed orders early in the pandemic have come out ahead, industry analysts said, while schools that waited until summer — often because they were struggling to make ends meet — are at a disadvantage.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, spent $100 million on computers in March and said in September that it was unaffected by shortages. But Paterson Public Schools in New Jersey had to wait until it received federal coronavirus relief money in late May to order 14,000 Chromebooks, which were then delayed because of Commerce Department restrictions on a Chinese manufacturer, Hefei Bitland.

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